AF’s Weblog

January 26, 2011

Cables: The Most Important Piece of Gear

Filed under: Hardware, Speakers — Tags: , , , , — audiofanzine @ 11:23 am

No matter how much caffeine you’ve consumed today, you’re not as wired as your studio – or your stage rig. But how much do you really think about those little spaghetti-like critters that form the central nervous system of your musical world?

Wire is an actual electronic component, and it can affect your sound – so let’s investigate ways to make your wires work harder for you.

Speaker Cables

With non-powered speakers that are fed from a power amp, the use of proper cables (never use instrument cords!) can make an audible sonic improvement. This is because amplifiers and speakers are very low-impedance devices, so even the slightest resistance between the two makes it more difficult to transfer power efficiently. Because reproducing bass frequencies at high volume require lots of power, cable problems generally manifest themselves as reduced or “thin” bass.

Planet Waves SpeakOn

Fig. 1: SpeakOn connectors lock into place for a firm connection, and minimize arcing if removed under load.

There are plenty of companies that make speaker cables, but in addition to the wire itself, the connectors are important. A corroded connection, or one that doesn’t make good contact, can affect the sound. Locking SpeakOn connectors (Fig. 1) are an industry standard, but banana connectors are inexpensive and reliable; screw terminals are also good if your cables have bare wire ends.

1/4″ phone plugs are also common for speaker wires, but with standard plugs, there are fewer points of contact with the jack compared to SpeakOn or banana connectors. However, there are phone plugs that have additional compression springs to provide better contact (Fig. 2).

As to the wire itself, the smaller the gauge number, the thicker the wire-and the thicker the wire, the lower the resistance. 16 gauge wire is used for a lot of systems, but for long cable runs or high power, 12 gauge is a better (albeit more expensive) option.

If you’re arguing with your budget and big-bucks speaker cables are out of the question, there’s a somewhat messy but low-cost workaround: Run several wires designed for high current (e.g., AC “zip” cords) in parallel, with an equal number of cables for the hot and ground connections, to lower the overall resistance. For example, if you run two zip cords in parallel, you’ve cut the resistance in half and four zip cords in parallel cut the resistance by 75%. With the decreased resistance, you may hear a difference (the infamous “tighter bass”) if the cable runs are fairly long, or if you play at loud volume with a lot of bass. Zip cords are available at local hardware stores.

Another option for those on a budget is to buy a coil of cable and the needed connectors, then assemble your own cables. You won’t save huge amounts of money, but it will be enough to make your wallet happy.

Planet Waves Jack

Fig. 2: This Planet Waves 1/4″ phone plug has eight compression springs on the shank, providing increased contact with the jack and also holding it more firmly in place to prevent accidental removal.

Gold-Plated Connectors: Hype or Not?

Monster Cable jacks plaqués or

Fig 3: Cables and connectors are surrounded by hype and questionable  claims, but gold-plating the ends of connectors does make a difference.

You’ve probably seen cables advertised with gold connectors (Fig. 3) and wondered if it was just hype, or really made a difference. Well, gold is indeed one of the best metals for electrical interconnection, because it is relatively malleable. As a result it will “squish” into place and fill in gaps better than other metals. This provides better contact, which improves the sound quality. (Extreme cases of bad contact produce scratchy noises, but even slight corrosion can do anything from add distortion to reduce levels.)

Unfortunately gold isn’t cheap, so you pay a premium for gold-plated connectors. But there is a pretty decent workaround: Contact enhancement chemicals, such as Caig DeoxIT, can restore and improve contact connections with non-gold-plated connectors. I’ve known studio owners who swear their sound improves if they spray their patch bay connectors every 6-12 months with DeoxIT.

Now let’s take a close look…

Multi-Conductor Cables: Caution!

Multiconductor cables can be quite delicate, as I first learned when working with SCSI cables. When you’re trying to fit so many conductors inside a single jacket, each conductor has to be pretty thin, and therefore is fairly weak.

Frequent plugging and unplugging of multiconductor cables shortens their lives much faster than an equivalent amount of stress with audio cables. Bending, twisting, or setting weighty objects on a multiconductor cable can also ruin it in short order, as can letting its weight pull on the part of the cable attached to the connector. For best results, once you wire up a multiconductor cable, make sure it’s well-supported, then leave it there.

Last Word

Well, that’s enough wire talk for now. The whole saying about a chain being only as good as its weakest link also refers to the wires that link your gear together; hopefully the above tips will strengthen some of the weaker links in your setup.

To read the full detailed article see:  All About Wires

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